In remarks this week before the Chamber of Commerce, new SEC Chair Jay Clayton indicated that the SEC will be taking a hard look at the shareholder proposal rules. As reported in thedeal.com, Clayton advised that it is “very important to ask ourselves how much of a cost there is….how much costs should the quiet shareholder, the ordinary shareholder, bear for idiosyncratic interests of other [investors].” Clayton was certainly speaking to a receptive audience—the Chamber has also recently voiced criticism of the shareholder proposal process (see this PubCo post) and, on the same day as Clayton’s remarks, issued its own report proposing changes to staunch the flow of proposals (discussed below). As you may recall, in the Financial CHOICE Act of 2017, the House also proposed to raise the eligibility and resubmission thresholds for shareholder proposals to levels that would have effectively curtailed the process altogether for all but the very largest holders. Although that Act is currently foundering in the Senate, at the same Chamber presentation, Commissioner Michael Piwowar commented to reporters that the SEC could certainly act on its own without any impetus from Congress, observing that the “chairman sets the agenda, but I’m going to be meeting with folks at public companies to talk about their experiences with proxy season.” With both the House and the Chamber having weighed in, if the SEC now takes up the cause on its own, the question is: just how far will it push?
Framework developed by the Investor Stewardship Group establishes common set of investor expectations for corporate governance
The Investor Stewardship Group—a group of the largest, most prominent institutional investors and global asset managers investing, in the aggregate, over $20 trillion in the U.S. equity markets—has developed the Framework for U.S. Stewardship and Governance, a “framework of basic standards of investment stewardship and corporate governance for U.S. institutional investor and boardroom conduct.” The stewardship framework identifies fundamental responsibilities for institutional investors, and the corporate governance framework identifies six fundamental principles that “are designed to establish a foundational set of investor expectations about corporate governance practices in U.S. public companies. Generally, the principles “reflect the common corporate governance beliefs embedded in each member’s proxy voting and engagement guidelines,” although each ISG member may differ somewhat on specifics. The ISG encourages company directors to apply these basic principles—while acknowledging that they are not designed to be “prescriptive or comprehensive” and can be applied in various ways—and indicates that it will “evaluate companies’ alignment with these principles, as well as any discussion of alternative approaches that directors maintain are in a company’s best interests.” The framework does not go “into effect” until January 1, 2018, so that companies will have “time to adjust to these standards in advance of the 2018 proxy season,” the implication being that failure to “comply or explain” by that point could ultimately lead to shareholder opposition during proxy season. Check out the countdown clock at the link above!
What’s happening with those SEC proposals for Dodd-Frank clawbacks and disclosure of pay for performance and hedging? Apparently, not much.
As noted in this article from Law360, the SEC’s latest Regulatory Flexibility Agenda, which identifies those regs that the SEC intends to propose or adopt in the coming year— and those deferred for a later time—has now been posted. The Agenda shifts to the category of long-term actions most of the Dodd-Frank compensation-related items that had previously been on the short-term agenda—not really a big surprise given the deregulatory bent of the new administration. Keep in mind, however, that the Agenda has no binding effect and, in this case, could be even less prophetic than usual; the Preamble to the SEC’s Agenda indicates that it reflects “only the priorities of the Acting Chairman [Michael Piwowar], and [does] not necessarily reflect the view and priorities of any individual Commissioner.” It also indicates that information in the Agenda was accurate as of March 29, 2017. As a result, it does not necessarily reflect the views of the new SEC Chair, Jay Clayton, who was not confirmed in that post until May.
This is the opening paragraph from Tuesday’s column by Alison Frankel, one of my favorite legal columnists/bloggers:
“This could be the start of something huge: Securities and Exchange Commissioner Michael Piwowar said in a speech Monday to the Heritage Foundation that the SEC is open to the idea of allowing companies contemplating initial public offerings to include mandatory shareholder arbitration provisions in corporate charters. If Piwowar’s statements…mark a new SEC policy on mandatory arbitration, they could be the beginning of the end of securities fraud class actions.”
What’s next for the House after taking on Dodd-Frank in the Financial CHOICE Act? Apparently, it’s time to revisit SOX. The Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Securities, and Investment of the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing earlier this week entitled “The Cost of Being a Public Company in Light of Sarbanes-Oxley and the Federalization of Corporate Governance.” During the hearing, all subcommittee members continued bemoaning the decline in IPOs and in public companies, with the majority of the subcommittee attributing the decline largely to regulatory overload. A number of the witnesses trained their sights on, among other things, the internal control auditor attestation requirement of SOX 404(b). Is auditor attestation, for all but the very largest companies, about to hit the dust?
In his first public speech as SEC Chair, Jay Clayton outlined for the Economic Club of New York eight principles that he aims to guide his tenure as Chair. In discussing these principles and some ways in which he plans to put them into practice, Clayton seemed to stress the need to focus more intently on the various costs of regulatory compliance—in dollars, in time, in effort, in complexity and in economic impact. In particular, Clayton drew attention to a reduction in the number of public companies in recent years—a “roughly 50% decline in the total number of U.S.-listed public companies over the last two decades”—attributing the decline at least in part to the expansion of disclosure requirements, in some cases beyond materiality. To address this issue, he asserted, the SEC “should review its rules retrospectively” from the perspective of the cumulative effect of required disclosure, not just each incremental slice. Finally, he noted that the SEC “has several initiatives underway to improve the disclosure available to investors, “ including implementation of recommendations contained in the SEC staff’s Report on Modernization and Simplification of Regulation S-K (see this PubCo post). According to Clayton, the staff “is making good progress on preparing rulemaking proposals based on this report….”